The best thriller filmmakers know how to extract maximum tension from the seemingly inactive periods between the big action sequences. It’s been done by Hitchcock, De Palma, Spielberg, and Fincher, yet it’s still a deceptively simple part of directing.
Best thrillers compress and stretch their viewers with a glance or a long, calm pause that leads to nothing but another delay or a stroll through a metropolis. Potential energy is just as vital as the authentic, kinetic moments when the tension breaks into something else.
Chloe Okuno has established her talent as a thriller filmmaker with her latest film, “Watcher,” which stars a fascinating Maika Monroe as a stranger in a new place struggling with an often passive sense of terror.
Okuno’s feature directorial debut creates one of the most unsettling cinematic experiences you’re likely to have this year with just a handful of characters, a sparse environment, and a vaguely familiar plot.
Fears of the Unknown Exist in a Brand-new Location
“Watcher” is directed by Okuno and written by Zack Ward. Julia (Monroe) arrives in an unfamiliar place where she doesn’t understand the language. She struggles to acclimatize to the language, the city’s pace, and worries of a serial killer known as the Spider, who just claimed another victim and seems to target young women like her. Julia’s husband Francis (Karl Glusman) is at home in Bucharest, his family’s homeland.
Julia tries to adapt for herself and her husband. As she tries to understand the language and culture, she befriends a neighbor, goes shopping, and watches movies. Something seems amiss beyond the usual discomfort of a new place and nation.
A dark figure across the street seems to be watching her. What if he’s not just people-watching or staring out his window? What if he’s the man (Burn Gorman) she’s noticed in the supermarket, movies, and train? What if she’s already caught in the Spider’s web?
As Julia watches others around her die, she’s sure she’ll be next, but Okuno and Ward don’t go that route. Instead, they keep a safe distance, observing Julia’s inner tension, terror, and external factors.
Okuno makes sure we know the difference by making Julia the primary personal focus of the film. Julia has a husband, friends, and other individuals she interacts with, but we never feel like we know them.
Okuno’s delicate, exquisite camerawork sets Julia in the frame as a lonely observer, possibly the only person who can view the world as she does in a horrific moment. The film’s compositions present Julia as a diminutive figure against an alien cityscape, and a figure caught in a golden cage, surrounded by wealth and freedom but without an escape hatch. The film’s structure creates ongoing emotional tension.
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A Vigilant Female Observer
Okuno’s meticulously constructed horror landscape relies on Monroe to sell the personal anxiety that immediately settles into the film. In that respect, Monroe delivered what could be the best performance of her career thus far.
Even though Julia believes she is being watched, “Watcher” is not merely a name for the film but rather an epithet for Julia herself, the only person in her life who seems to pay attention as the walls surrounding her steadily close in.
The suspense in the picture is maintained by Monroe’s ability to communicate a complex range of emotions in a single performance, including a mix of determination, vulnerability, and frustration.
Throughout “Watcher,” there is a sense of ambiguity, a notion that Julia may have misconstrued something that has left her essentially afraid for no reason. We, the audience, must understand that Julia is quite sure that she is correct and terrified of her certainty and of what might happen to her if she is wrong. In Monroe’s case, it’s possible to convey that with just one look. This is an outstanding performance.
Of course, the less we know about the film’s accurate conclusions, the better. Even though it follows a formula that has been used before (such as “Rear Window,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” and even De Palma’s “Blow Out” and “Body Double”), the film succeeds because of its ability to keep the viewer frightened by sheer skill until, by the third act, you genuinely aren’t sure what’s going to happen even if you’re convinced you’ve seen a dozen films like it. The suspense that permeates “Watcher” is primarily due to the film’s unpredictability and a genuine sense of unease.